The making of RUSSIAN ARK is a story of records and firsts - the first entirely unedited, single screen, single take, full-length feature film; the longest-ever steadicam sequence, the first ever uncompressed HD Movie, recorded onto a portable hard disk system, rather than 35mm or tape.
But it is the making of a film with a director who is not at all interested in "firsts" and "records" and who has no special fascination for inventing anything "new". Instead Alexander Sokurov is a director who is concerned with the simple principal elements of cinema: sound, image, time.
When we set off on this journey that was to become RUSSIAN ARK, more than four years ago, it sounded novel but straightforward. "I am sick of editing", Sokurov said, "let's not be afraid of time". His idea for a one-shot digital film moving in real time through the rooms and halls of the Hermitage seemed wonderfully simple and even easy. Digital video, one shooting day, no editing! A producer's dream.
Of course, we were wrong. RUSSIAN ARK was a tour de force - beyond what always turns out to be a tough process. Years of developing an idea that most people could not comprehend or believed impossible to carry out. Months of rehearsals and preparation culminating in a single take of an entire feature film on a single shooting day. A joint crew from Russia and from Germany had to function together symbiotically for a simple adrenaline-pumping moment of sheer filmmaking nerve.
Yet, when it was over, it was simple, after all. Sokurov had a vision, which poured out and came together in a single moment. It was all in his head and ninety minutes later, it was all on film. A film that really was cut in the camera. A film that mirrors the flowing of time accurately. Like life, it is impossible to divide time.
No cut = Director's Cut.
Alexander Sokurov's extraordinary vision of filming RUSSIAN ARK in one uninterrupted take required extraordinary technical solutions. As it is physically impossible to record more than twelve continuous minutes of conventional film, we had to turn to video. However, it was only the fairly recent arrival of compact 24p High Definition cameras that offered the visual quality and portability to make this film for cinema, eventually transferring the digital image to 35mm negative.
With the help of German HD-specialists KOPP MEDIA, a complex portable rig was designed to accommodate the demands of the script, which included precise architectural plans outlining the 1300m distance covered in the narrative. It was decided that the only way to move the camera would be using steadicam although, until after the final shoot, we could not be sure that such a long steadicam shot is even possible because of the extreme physical demands on the operator.
The next challenge was the recording medium. An HD camera can only record 46 minutes without changing tapes. We needed 90. A prototype hard disk recording system developed by the Cologne company Director's Friend which provided the solution. Adapted to be portable and equipped with a special ultra-stable battery, this system could record up to 100 minutes of uncompressed image - but only once.
Hence there was but a single shooting day. With four hours of existing light. Thousand of people in front of and behind the camera simply had to work together perfectly. The Museum was closed and restored to its original condition. An equivalent of 33 studios had to be lit in one go throughout allowing for 360° camera movements. All within a vulnerable environment that holds some of the greatest art treasures of all from da Vinci to Rembrandt. After months of rehearsals, 867 actors, hundreds of extras, three live orchestras and 22 assistant directors had to know their precise positions and lines.
The list of things that could have gone wrong is very long. But through the sheer determination of the director, or possibly a miracle, nothing did. It worked.
THE STATE HERMITAGE MUSEUM
A museum of world renown. The pride of Russia and of its northern capital, St. Petersburg. A very special world, a separate page in Russian history.
2003 will mark the 300th anniversary of the City of St. Petersburg. At the heart of this stunning city, on the banks of the river Neva, lies the Hermitage, one of the world's finest and most beautiful architectural ensembles: the Winter Palace (the former residence of the Russian Tsars), the Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage, New Hermitage and Hermitage Theatre.
First built by Peter the Great as a modest Winter Palace, then expanded by their heirs, it was Empress Catherine II who founded the Hermitage as a museum. In 1764 she acquired 225 paintings for her own private picture gallery. Her intention: to surpass all the other famous collections of her fellow European monarchs.
In 1917, the Winter Palace was the site of the October Revolution. During WW II, the city - and the Hermitage - survived a 900-day siege by Nazi forces, which cost more than one million lives.
Today the Hermitage is one of the largest and most celebrated museums in the world. Its collection consists of more than three million items: paintings and sculptures, prints and drawings, decorative and applied art, coins and medals, and a rich selection of archeological artefacts.
The Hermitage has branches in London, Amsterdam and Las Vegas.
Director of Photography/Steadicam operator
Born in 1961, Tilman Büttner graduated from the Konrad Wolf School of Cinema and TV, Potsdam (1988). He specialises in steadicam filming and made his name with the film RUN, LOLA, RUN by Tom Tykwer (1997), for which he shot all the scenes in movement.
2002 RUSSIAN ARK, Feature Film, Director: Alexander Sokurov
2001 BIG GIRLS DON'T CRY, Feature Film, Director: Maria von Heland
2000 GRIPSHOLM, Feature Film, Director: Xavier Koller
1998 GIGANTIC, Feature Film, Director: Sebastian Schipper
1997 RUN, LOLA, RUN, Feature Film, Director: Tom Tykwer
German Prize for Director of Photography
EXTRACTS FROM AN INTERVIEW WITH TILLMAN BUTTNER
Sokurov immediately won me over with how serious, how open he is; he somehow talked very trustingly. You are immediately struck by how Sokurov relates to his team, to his staff - with those who are closer or less close to him: there is a common style, a common tone, which wins you over straight off. Most importantly, what appealed to me on a purely human level, was that this director respected everyone equally, regardless of their rank, status or role in the process.
And when you first went through the sequence, what did you think?
You know, I didn't have any thoughts in particular. Apart from some feeling inside that I was entering an atmosphere in which the Russian Tsars had walked. People of another world, of another century, of another, unattainable, status. Which I, a simple mortal, would never have been able to penetrate. Not even come anywhere near it. So I had this kind of inner trepidation, I don't know what to call it. I'm walking across the same floors, touching the same objects, looking at the same walls. .. And I felt very small, a nonentity.
The second sensation which arose was of the vast mass of paintings, and here was all this art which seemed to press down on me. I understood in my head that it is beautiful, that it is magnificent. But I could not see any beauty, I could not identify it behind the single, monolithic mass which immediately crushed me. And it's only now that I can begin to understand those people who come to the Hermitage once a week for half an hour or an hour at a time. I understand how you can really enjoy these objects. And even now I'm amazed by the vast spaces of the Hermitage. Sometimes I catch myself thinking that I can never truly comprehend the whole of this vast mass right to the very end.